Neil Gorsuch is the first member of his family chosen for a seat on the Supreme Court, but he isn’t the only Gorsuch nominated by a U.S. president to a key government post.
His mother, Anne Gorsuch, served as President Ronald Reagan’s first Environmental Protection Agency administrator and the first female leader in the agency’s history. But her short, tumultuous tenure was marked by sharp budget cuts, rifts with career EPA employees, a steep decline in cases filed against polluters and a scandal over the mismanagement of the Superfund cleanup program that ultimately led to her resignation in 1983.
Anne Gorsuch — like Reagan then and President Trump today — was a firm believer that the federal government was too big, too powerful and too eager to issue regulations that restricted businesses.
As a result, she slashed the EPA’s budget by nearly a quarter and, according to a Washington Post story at the time, boasted that she had reduced the thickness of the book of clean water regulations from six inches to a half inch. She filled various departments at EPA with subordinates recruited from the very industries the agency was supposed to be regulating.
She also made quick enemies.
“The big mistake Anne Gorsuch made when she first came in was she sort of bought into the rhetoric of the campaign,” William Ruckelshaus, the EPA’s first administrator under President Richard Nixon and the man who eventually returned to restore morale after Gorsuch’s resignation, said in a recent interview. “She treated a lot of people in the agency as the enemy, and they weren’t. But within a week, they were. … It was not a pleasant place.” (A Doonesbury comic strip story line from 1982 depicts an EPA employee out on a ledge, threatening to jump.)
That unpleasantness was clear in a story that appeared on the front page of The Post on Sept. 30, 1981:
Budget cuts at the Environmental Protection Agency will strip 3,200 personnel of their jobs by the end of 1983, eliminating 30 percent of the agency’s 10,380 employees at a cost of $17.6 million just for severance pay.
The cuts are so massive that they could mean a basic retreat on all the environmental programs of the past 10 years, according to agency sources and administration critics. At the same time, divisions between Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch and career agency staff over her approach to policymaking have all but reached open warfare.
One EPA employee from the era, mechanical engineer Dennis Tirpak, worked on the issue of acid rain and would later go on to work on climate change. Although he said that his own career didn’t suffer at EPA during the Gorsuch era, Tirpak remembers that the overall feeling at the time at the agency was “anxiousness, because it was the first time that the agency was really under a lot of pressure with the new administration to really cut back regulations and to cut back on personnel. And it’s really the Congress that protected the agency at that time.”
Neil Gorsuch was a teenager when Reagan nominated his mother to lead the EPA. Her appointment meant uprooting her son from Colorado to Washington, where he graduated from Georgetown Prep, an all-male high school in Bethesda.
He went on to graduate from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, and his career as a judge appears to have only occasionally touched on environmental issues.
“I think that he doesn’t have a lightning rod case on a particular environmental program,” said Brendan Collins, an attorney with Ballard Spahr who works on environmental cases on behalf of energy companies. “He has had cases in which he has ruled in favor of the agency, including the agency’s ability to depart from its guidance, to change its mind, so to speak. And from that perspective, he hasn’t shown himself to have any flagrantly anti-environmental skeletons in his closet, at least not that I’ve been able to identify so far.”
However, there’s one opinion in a non-environmental case, Hugo Rosario Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Loretta E. Lynch, that is pretty sure to draw fire and alarm environmentalists. In this case, which turned on a decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals, Gorsuch questioned the legal doctrine often known as “Chevron deference,” in reference to the 1984 Supreme Court case Chevron v. NRDC, in which the court ruled that in situations of statutory ambiguity, courts should allow expert government agencies to fill gaps and interpret what Congress meant in fulfilling their legal mandates, provided they do so in a defensible way. This ruling is crucial for the defense of many actions by the EPA, and in fact the Chevron case turned on one of them.
But Gorsuch suggested of Chevron that it might be a good thing if this “Goliath of modern administrative law were to fall.” “We managed to live with the administrative state before Chevron,” he concluded. “We could do it again. Put simply, it seems to me that in a world without Chevron very little would change — except perhaps the most important things.”
Gorsuch’s Chevron related opinion “may make people feel uncomfortable, and feel that agencies, particularly agencies that are given a lot of gap filling responsibilities by Congress in existing law, are going to be hamstrung,” said Collins. We can bet that Gorsuch will be asked about his Chevron views in his confirmation hearings.
While Anne Gorsuch might have suffered from a lack of diplomatic skills, she did not lack in personality and toughness. The Post once described her as a “striking woman with jet-black hair” who had “television-star looks and perfect manicures.”
“She wore fur coats and smoked two packs of Marlboros a day; her government-issued car got about 15 miles per gallon of gasoline,” The Post once wrote. “She could charm opponents, but she also did not shy away from political combat. Denver’s Rocky Mountain News once said, ‘She could kick a bear to death with her bare feet.’”
By the end of her stint at EPA, Anne Gorsuch was under siege. A half dozen congressional committees were looking into allegations of mismanagement of the Superfund program, which was designed to clean up abandoned toxic waste sites around the country. The House voted to cite Gorsuch for contempt of Congress for failing to turn over subpoenaed records.
“Anne Gorsuch inherited one of the most efficient and capable agencies in government,” read a New York Times editorial in early 1983. “She has turned it into an Augean stable, reeking of cynicism, mismanagement and decay.”
Gorsuch’s credibility, and that of other top EPA leaders, was in tatters. And the debacle reflected poorly on Reagan, who eventually forced her to step down.
For her part, Gorsuch felt targeted by the “hysteria” of environmental groups, unfairly demonized by the press and not fully supported by the president.
“When congressional criticism about the EPA began to touch the presidency, Mr. Reagan solved his problem by jettisoning me and my people, people [whose] only ‘crime’ was loyal service, following orders,” she wrote in her 1986 book, “Are You Tough Enough?” She added, “I was not the first to receive his special brand of benevolent neglect, a form of conveniently looking the other way, while his staff continues to do some very dirty work.”
After her departure, the White House persuaded Ruckelshaus to return to the EPA to restore stability.
“The damage had been done to morale. There was fear in the agency,” he recalled. “I told them we were going to respect science and the scientific method. I told them we were going to carry out the mission of the agency. … Once they saw that their work was going to be respected — in effect, they had their assignments back, they had their jobs back, that calmed them down.”
Anne Gorsuch Burford — she changed her name after marrying Robert Burford, director of the Bureau of Land Management, just before her resignation — died of cancer in 2004 at age 62. At the time, her son Neil told The Post that as a young district attorney, his mother had pursued “deadbeat dads” long before that cause was popular. She had returned to working on child advocacy issues in her final years, and was still working at the time of her death.
More from Energy and Environment: